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Conservatives unveil overhaul of election law

OTTAWA - The Harper government has introduced a sweeping overhaul of Canada's election laws that it says will crack down on fraudulent robocalls, improve election financing and stop voter cheating.

But while increasing penalties for election fraud, the long-awaited legislation does not provide Elections Canada with the new powers it had been seeking to compel party operatives to provide evidence.

Instead, the proposed legislation introduced Tuesday would effectively split Elections Canada in two, separating the chief electoral officer who administers the rules from the commissioner who investigates and enforces those rules.

"The referee should not be wearing a team jersey," Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister for democratic reform, said in explaining the decision.

That rationale immediately raised the hackles of opposition critics, who argue the Conservative government is smearing the impartiality of Elections Canada after years of being on the wrong side of numerous spending investigations.

"The reason I doubt anything the Conservatives say on electoral matters is they have a proven track record of consistently cheating in elections," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said outside the Commons.

Inside the House, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused the government of wanting "to strip Elections Canada of its investigative powers, attacking its independence."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded that by moving the elections commissioner out of Elections Canada and into the office of the director of public prosecutions, better investigations will result.

"That should help the independence and the effectiveness of law enforcement," said Harper.

The change is just one of dozens that will alter the way election campaigns, leadership races, party financing, rules disputes and even election-night results are conducted.

One measure lifts the veil on mass communication of results, allowing voters in Western Canada to know the running tally from the East before polls close in their region.

There will be a mandatory registry for all automated campaign phone calls in an effort to stamp out the kind of fraudulent calls that marred the 2011 campaign. Penalties for impersonating an elections official have been increased.

They're raising the annual cap on those taxpayer-subsidized donations to political parties, increasing the amounts parties can spend in elections and removing some costs — including pricey fundraising work — from the campaign expense cap.

There are even new rules instructing Elections Canada on its public outreach. There are to be no more ads imploring Canadians to get out and vote. Instead, the independent agency must stick to informing voters where, when and how to cast a ballot.

Voters will now need specific identification to cast a ballot — the old voter's card won't be enough — and registered voters will no longer be able to vouch for others who lack the proper ID.

Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer who says he was not consulted on the bill, was being given a briefing on the legislation Tuesday afternoon — after MPs and the media.

Mayrand's office could not say when he would be able to comment on the legislation. But Poilievre insisted the government had incorporated many of Mayrand's previous recommendations into the bill.

"The Fair Elections Act will make our rules tough, predictable and easy to follow," the minister said. "It'll be harder for election lawbreakers and easier for honest citizens taking part in democracy."

Mayrand has long been pushing for greater investigative powers; the thousands of fraudulent calls reported during the 2011 election campaign finally spurred Parliament to act.

Last March, Conservatives in the Commons supported an NDP motion that called for the introduction of a bill targeting fraudulent robocalls within six months. A month later, the government indicated legislation would be introduced within days, but balked after Conservative MPs objected to some of the bill's provisions.

Craig Scott, the NDP democratic reform critic, described the legislation finally released Tuesday as "Orwellian."

"We were looking for something that would be reining in electoral fraud," said Scott.

"Instead, we have something that is flipped to make it look like it's about reining in the office that has been doing its best to fight electoral fraud."

If passed, the legislation won't oust Yves Cote, the incumbent commissioner who has more than five years left in his term.

Cote was appointed by the chief electoral officer under the current system. Future commissioners would be appointed by the director of public prosecutions to a non-renewable, seven-year term. The legislation bars former political candidates, political party employees, ministerial or MP staffers — or employees of Elections Canada — from being named commissioner.

Liberal critic Scott Simms said the changes to Cote's working conditions "isolate him" and otherwise make no sense.

"They only made him independent from the body that actually gives him most of the information that he has now," said Simms.

Bruce Hyer, the former New Democrat who now sits as a Green party MP, called the legislation "nothing but red herrings and fluff."

Parliamentarians will begin debate on the bill Wednesday.

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